June 26: Tea trade unions in Jalpaiguri today said they would be forced to go on a strike if planters did not revise the wages of the workers immediately as they had demanded.
A tripartite meeting was held on June 18 in Uttarkanya where it was decided that a daily wage hike of Rs 21 would be given over a period of three years. This would mean a yearly hike of Rs 7.Tea unions did not agree to the hike.
The minimum daily wage rate in Bengal is Rs 206. Tea workers in the hills get Rs 90 as wage, and in the Dooars and Terai they get Rs 95. Most of the tea unions demanded a hike of over Rs 200.
The unions that threatened the strike today are affiliated to the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers.
“From today, all constituent unions of our forum have initiated demonstrations by holding gate meetings in each tea garden of the Dooars and Terai. We will continue our demonstrations and also hold meetings in some of the prominent locations across the tea belt,” said Chitta Dey, the convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers.
In November 2011, the last wage agreement was signed when a hike of Rs 28 was finalised after several rounds of tripartite meetings in Calcutta. A wage agreement is valid for three years. This agreement period ended in March 2014.
Two rounds of meetings were held among the planters, the tea trade unions and the labour department but they could not come to any conclusion.
“The planters have proposed an abysmally low amount of Rs 7 per year as an annual hike for the next three years. This is unacceptable. If proposals of such low hikes keep on coming from their side, we would have no other alternative but to go on strike,” Dey said.
Tea unions had called an industry-wide strike for 15 days in 2008 over unsatisfactory wages.
“In 2008, when a tripartite wage agreement was signed, we were forced to go on an indefinite strike across the tea belts of the Terai, Dooars and Darjeeling. The planters were forced to increase the rates. The wage rate then for workers in the hills and the plains was Rs 53.90. The planters had proposed a hike of between Rs 5-7. After the strike the hike was increased to Rs 13.50 for a period of three years,” Dey said.
Ziaur Alam, the Jalpaiguri district secretary of Citu, also criticised the planters.
“In 2011, they assented to a hike of Rs 28 but this time, they are proposing a hike of Rs 21 only. We have demanded a daily wage rate of Rs 285, including the variable dearness allowance. The demonstrations have commenced today and will intensify in the coming days,” said Alam.
According to the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers, the garden protests will continue. Its leaders will meet in Jalpaiguri on July 7 to decide the next course of action.
Planters today said they were open to hold more talks with the unions. But “calling a strike would only affect the industry”, said Amitangshu Chakraborty, convener of the Bengal branch of Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations.